Rural District's Successful Literacy Program Making a Big Difference

Last Updated: August 25, 2010

This article appeared in the August 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

“We’ve seen our library check-out rates go up 300% in the last three years — and that doesn’t even count the books students read in their classroom libraries. There’s a marked difference in the attitudes of teachers and principals; everyone understands their responsibility to teach and improve literacy across the curriculum,” says Dr. Diann Gathright, Superintendent of Mena Public Schools, about the district’s school-wide comprehensive literacy program. The rural district is located in western Arkansas. 

“Now, students and teachers are talking about the books they’re reading,” she says. “Most teachers have signs on their doors where they post something about books or literature. For example, the sign might say ‘Ask Me What I’m Reading’ or something else that engages students.”

“Even in casual conversation, you’ll hear coaches talking with students about literature instead of sports,” she adds with a laugh.

And, yes, Mena’s achievement levels have risen dramatically since the literacy program began. “Four years ago, between 40% and 60% of our students scored Advanced or Proficient in math and reading on the state tests,” explains Gathright. “Now we have between 60% and 100% of students making Advanced or Proficient. And very few students skip written response questions. That used to be a problem for us. But now the students are comfortable writing and know they can do it.”

Funding Makes the Difference

What explains this dramatic improvement in literacy skills and attitudes?

Four years ago the Mena schools began participating in Literacy Lab, an extensive professional development program that trains teachers across the curriculum to integrate the teaching of literacy with subject area content. In addition, each participating teacher receives a classroom “library” of books to use with their students.

“Four years ago we began participating in Literacy Lab at Harding University in Searcy,” explains Gathright. “It’s a three-year long training that includes residencies at Harding and follow-up. Teachers go as a group and stay together throughout the training. We have had two groups of teachers go all the way through the process and others groups are participating in the training now. In addition, we have literacy and math coaches who work with all the teachers to support them and the implementation of the program.”

The Literacy Lab program is not Mena’s only professional development opportunity. “We provide professional development at the district level, and we participate in professional development with other schools in our cooperative service unit,” says Gathright. “Those are good programs, and we do extensive analysis of data and follow up with coaching and support because we know professional development that doesn’t include that kind of focus, analysis, and support doesn’t make much difference. We work to tie curriculum to instruction so that the actual curriculum and the taught and perceived curriculum are the same.”

But Literacy Lab, which has had such a dramatic impact, is much more extensive, intensive — and expensive — than the other professional development programs. The district must pay for teachers to participate in the trainings and buy the student books that are used in the programs. And there are other expenses for distant rural school districts that urban districts do not incur. For example, Mena must cover the mileage, hotel, and meal expenses for teachers to participate in the residency requirements at Harding, which is more than two hours away. The district's state and local funding does not stretch that far.

“Our federal Title I funding enables us to do Literacy Lab,” says Gathright. “Without that source of funding we simply could not afford it.”

Higher Expenses in Rural Districts

Mena is a small and remote district in the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas. “It’s at least an hour and a half to any city,” says Gathright. “Most of our roads are gravel mountain roads. Just keeping our buses running is a major expense for us. The roads are so rough and the wear and tear is so heavy that we sometimes have to replace the frames of the buses.”

The poverty rate in Mena was almost 29% in 2009, a rate that rivals many large urban districts. And, the area has been hit hard by the current recession. “People have lost jobs, some have had to move away. We’ve seen our free and reduced lunch rate rise to 64% and our enrollment drop to 1941,” says Gathright.

Like most rural districts, Mena does not have many sources of local revenue to supplement state funding for its schools.

On top of these troubles, a tornado destroyed the middle school last year, damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes in the community, and killed three residents.

Title I: Big Impact

“We spend between 85% and 87% of our budget on teacher salaries,” says Gathright, reflecting a figure common to many rural districts. “With declining enrollment especially, it takes everything we have in our regular budget just to keep the schools operating.”

“Title I allows us to do things we simply could not afford otherwise,” she continues. “It is critical to the quality of our instructional programs.”

Because of the high poverty rate, all four of the district’s schools — two elementaries, the middle and the high school — are school-wide Title I programs.

“Because we’re school-wide programs, we use our Title I funding to support Literacy Lab. Title I pays for our literacy and math specialists who coach teachers across the curriculum. It enables us to do much more extensive analysis of our data and make continuous improvement of our curriculum. We use Title I for instructional technology we could not afford,” Gathright continues.

“And the books. We buy books. Once students get excited about reading, it’s a bottomless pit. They always want more books,” she empasizes.

Title I: Big Worries

However, Gathright has serious concerns about the future of Mena’s Title I funding. “We had suspected something was going on with our Title I funding for awhile. Then two years ago the financial picture became much more limited in every area. Our expenses were the same but our funding levels were going down. That’s when we really realized that we weren’t getting the Title I funding we expected.”

In fact, Mena got $46,000 less in Title I funding in 2009 than it would have gotten if the formulas that distribute Title I funding did not include"number weighting" provisions that send more money per eligible student to larger districts than to smaller districts. These number-weighting provisions, which were first implemented in 2002, essentially transfer funding out of districts like Mena.

The $46,000 that Mena is losing to larger, generally lower-poverty school districts hurts Mena’s students. “That would cover the better part of a teacher salary,” says Gathright. “An additional teacher would make a big difference in several areas, especially in the district’s kindergarten program. Or, we could do more with technology,” she says, noting that many students do not have broadband access at home.

But number-weighting isn’t Gathright’s only concern.

Plans announced by the U.S. Department of Education to shift more federal education funding to competitive grants would jeopardize essential support for low-income students in many districts.

“If we go to a more competitive process for receiving federal funding, rural districts will be hurt even more. Most rural districts have trouble writing big competitive grants. They don’t have the staff and expertise that larger or wealthier districts can afford,” Gathright notes.

“Our district could probably write the grants, but to never know whether or not we were getting the funding would put our district in jeopardy. We would not be able to plan in the ways that we do now. And, we couldn’t keep the programs that we know make a difference going if we didn’t know whether or not we could count on funding for them,” she says.

Gathright’s perspective isn’t limited to her own district either. “Arkansas is making significant gains. When you look at our state, there aren’t but about ten districts that are large, and only one that is really urban. Drops in Title I funding because of number-weighting and the possibility of going to a more competitive grant process, that could really harm our state.”

Title I is the nation’s most significant federal program for improving educational opportunities for low-income children. Yet students in smaller, poorer districts are getting much less than their fair share of funding.

Are you concerned about these inequities in Title I funding?

Join the Formula Fairness Campaign at, where you can see how Title I inequities are affecting districts in your state and learn what you can do about it. Visit the Formula Fairness Campaign page on Facebook. And, don’t forget to contact your congressional representatives and tell them to fix the Title I formulas. You can get contact information at

Read more from the August 2010 Rural Policy Matters.